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One of the fetid messes which Ronald Reagan left on the Caribbean island of Grenada after his invasion of it in 1983 has been smelling increasingly vile over the last few decades. It has just resurfaced in London.
Older readers will remember that the government of prime minister Maurice Bishop was overthrown in a mini-putsch mounted by Bishop’s rival Bernard Coard in which Bishop and his closest supporters were massacred. Thereupon Reagan, seizing an opportunity offered by the deluded putschists, ordered a massive invasion of the tiny island alleging, inaccurately, that lives of US students on the island were at risk. Of course, no US lives were ever at risk. Of course the appeal for help to the US which was purportedly issued by Queen Elizabeth II’s representative on Grenada, Governor-General Sir Paul Scoon, which the Reaganites waved as the legal justification for the invasion was a fraudulent invention. It had been manufactured after the US troops had landed. Reagan had about as much genuine justification for invading Grenada as George Bush had for invading in Iraq.
On February 7 this year five members of the judicial committee of the Privy Council – otherwise known as “law lords” – who for historical reasons form the supreme court of the tiny former British colony now an independent mini-monarchy, gave their view of some of the elements of the legal charade which followed the invasion. They allowed the appeal of Coard and twelve others against their imprisonment on charges of murdering Bishop and his companions and declared that they had irregularly been in jail for almost a quarter of a century.
All thirteen doubtless had a hand in the murder on 19 October 1983 of Bishop and his closest colleagues. No one in his or her right mind thinks that Bernard Coard and his associates have clean hands. That is not the point. The point is that after the Ronald Reagan’s illegal invasion which was roundly condemned by the UN General Assembly and even by his close ally Margaret Thatcher, the men were detained unlawfully, put in front of a court of doubtful legality and kept under lock and key against the most elementary rules of the Grenadian constitution. In their judgement a few days ago the five law lords–some of whom were active in the cause of justice in Chile after the detention of the murderer Augusto Pinochet following his arrest in London in 1998–found unequivocally that the thirteen appellants “remain held in detention without lawful authority” and that “the appellants’ present detention is solely by the authority of the executive”. They added that their case should after all this time be put back to the Supreme Court of Grenada for proper sentencing. In plain English the highest legal authority is saying the appellants never enjoyed due process.
In late October 1983, Coard and his group were arrested and detained by US forces, held incommunicado on US naval vessels and subjected to lengthy interrogation à la Guantánamo. Their whereabouts were kept secret and requests from lawyers, family members and others to meet them were rejected. They were held by the US for periods of nine to twelve days before eventually being turned over the following month to the authorities at Richmond Hill Prison. The incommunicado detention of these people violated both the constitutional law of Grenada and international human rights law.
They reported they had been tortured. Amnesty says that they were subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment being held in wooden crates, fully exposed to the sun and without facilities for water or personal hygiene. Bernard Coard was allegedly held for a total of nine days in steel cages in the holds of two US naval vessels. The cages were placed very near the engine rooms of the ships where the noise was deafening.
Two years after their detention, the 13 with several others were finally brought in front of an unconstitutional tribunal, termed a court of necessity –shadows of the military tribunals fashioned to deal with the detainees in Guantánamo Bay. It was operating under the minute-by-minute control of, and indeed paid for by, the US government. It was no surprise therefore that among its many other deficiencies the method it adopted to choose the twelve jurors for the case was fraudulent. The job of choosing them, for instance, was taken away from the usual officer, the Registrar. A lawyer for the prosecution, Denise Campbell, was given the job of selecting the twelve from a group of citizens who saw nothing wrong in jeering and booing and proclaiming noisily in court that the accused would soon be hanged. When Campbell finished the selection process, the Registrar was given back the job which had temporarily been taken from him. The expressed wishes of the jurors were realised and they were sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. The judgement was delivered orally. A written document was not forthcoming since the ill-paid judges wouldn’t provide one except for a sum of money–rumoured to be up to US$100,000 for each of them – that the government of Grenada was unwilling to pay. Apart from Campbell many of the dramatis personae would have graced a novel by Charles Dickens. One was a jurist universally known as “Sleepy” Smith because of the difficulty he had controlling an eye-lid.
In 1991 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that throughout this pantomime the Government of the United States had violated a whole series of articles of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. They included the right to life, liberty and the physical security, the right to recognition of juridical personality and civil rights, the right to be protected from arbitrary arrest, the right to humane treatment in custody, the right to have the legality of detention ascertained without delay by a court, and the right to be tried without undue delay, or, in default of that, be released.
They have been kept in custody to this day.
It is a bizarre state of affairs when citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom–and indeed those of Grenada – have to rely on the judiciary rather than on supposedly democratically elected governments to get something resembling justice. But, sadly, such is the case. As already mentioned, various of the law lords involved in this month’s judgement played a useful role in keeping Pinochet under arrest in Britain to face justice for this crimes and make known the spurious medical evidence on which he was released: it was not their fault that the Blair government, which had initially decreed his arrest, then lost its nerve, found a way of overriding their views and allowed the old torturer to escape back to Chile where he has just died having finally evaded the law. The law lords’ latest judgement demonstrates they can recognise a fetid Caribbean mess when one is put under their noses.
HUGH O’SHAUGHNESSY, who reported Pinochet’s 1973 putsch from Chile and the US invasion from Grenada for The Observer, is the author of Grenada: Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath (1964) and Pinochet: the Politics of Torture (2000).